A tumultuous season for the Vancouver Canucks ended this week with a humiliating four-game sweep by the San Jose Sharks.
For a Canucks team only two years removed as Stanley Cup finalists and a two-time President’s Trophy winner, this early playoff exit raises more questions over their future than last season’s first round exit by the (eventual Stanley Cup champion) LA Kings.
This year, thankfully, no one was blaming Roberto Luongo’s goaltending. Indeed, the veteran netminder played well in the opening two games of the series, and coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to go with Cory Schneider for the next two games even puzzled the Sharks.
A lack of offensive depth, a struggling penalty kill and an inability to contain the Sharks top scorers led to the Canucks early demise.
Most observers consider the elimination by the Sharks means the Canucks window of opportunity as Cup contenders has passed, suggesting significant changes could be in the offing.
Some believe GM Mike Gillis could be fired, but considering he built the Canucks into a Cup contender, ownership will probably give him the opportunity to rebuild.
Head coach Alain Vigneault seems a more likely candidate to be fired, coming under increasing criticism since the Canucks failure to win the Cup two years ago.
While Vigneault deserves his fair share of criticism, it would be unfair to make him the scapegoat. The roster he had to work with this season had significant weaknesses, plus he was forced to juggle a contentious goaltending situation.
Ah, yes, the goaltending. It’s well-known Gillis unsuccessfully tried to move Luongo since last summer. The 34-year-old’s hefty contract was the stickin poing, and Gillis’ unwillingness to absorb part of it to facilitate a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline ensured an unhappy “Bobby Lu” finished the season in Vancouver.
To Luongo’s credit, he handled this situation throughout the season well, as did Cory Schneider, with the two friends even going so far to spoof the largely media-driven “goaltending controversy” with a skit for TSN.
Still, this situation cannot drag on into next season. Luongo must be moved, allowing Schneider to take over as the full-time starter.
It’s been suggested the Canucks would be better off moving Schneider rather than Luongo, as they’d receive a better return for the former than the latter.
Two problems with that theory. First, Gillis appears intent on making Schneider his starter. Second, Luongo seems keen now to move on with his career and his life.
If Luongo stays and Schneider goes, he’ll face increasing criticism from Vancouver fans and pundits, as well as comparisons to Schneider if the latter should go on to bigger and better things elsewhere. Most Canucks followers seem to want a break with Luongo as much as he now seems to want one from them.
The problem, of course, is the Canucks won’t likely get a decent return for Luongo compared to what they might have received at the trade deadline, or at the start of this shortened season, or last summer. They might even have to pick up part of his salary to get a deal done.
If there’s no real trade market for Luongo, an amnesty buyout could be considered. I realize the preference is to trade him, but if it appears they can’t even give him away (even by picking up part of his salary), it may be worth considering the amnesty buyout option.
Scoring depth has been an issue for the Canucks going back to their run to the Cup Final in 2011. With the Sedins, Alex Burrows and a healthy Ryan Kesler, they could overcome that problem, but this season it became a significant issue.
The Sedins, of course, are getting older and will be eligible for UFA status next summer, but if Gillis can bring in additional scoring depth, it would be worthwhile re-signing the pair, albeit to shorter and perhaps more affordable deals.
It’s been suggested the Canucks consider trading Alex Burrows, but I think a better candidate (if he could be convinced to waive his trade clause) is Kesler. When healthy, Kesler’s among the best two-way players in the game, but he hasn’t been healthy the past couple of years, sidelined by shoulder and hip injuries which were the result of his aggressive, physical style. Though only 28, his injuries woes could worsen in time.
Shopping Alex Edler is another option. His new six-year, $30 million contract contract kicks in this summer (with a no-trade clause), but he can be moved without his consent before July. The Flyers are among several teams seeking a puck-moving defenseman, though Edler’s new contract might dampen that enthusiasm. Still, if there’s a market to be had for his services, it’s worth investigating, especially if the return could be a good young scoring forward.
If moving Edler isn’t a option, moving out Keith Ballard via trade or amnesty buyout could be considered. Ballard hasn’t panned out as hoped, becoming a frequent target of fan and pundit criticism during his tenure with the Canucks.
An obvious amnesty buyout candidate is David Booth, provided he’s recovered from his ankle injury by this summer’s amnesty buyout period. Booth is keen to contribute, but he’s frequently injured, and his $4.25 million per season could be better spent elsewhere.
Pending UFAs Derek Roy and Mason Raymond are unlikely to be re-signed. Roy (a trade deadline pickup) didn’t pan out as hoped, while Raymond hasn’t blossomed into a reliable scoring threat.
The Canucks are right up against next season’s $64.3 million salary cap. Shedding Luongo’s, Booth’s and Ballard’s salaries via trade or buyout frees up over $14 million in cap space, which could be invested in adding scoring depth and perhaps more grit on the checking lines via trade or free agency.
We don’t know what Gillis has in store this summer for his club. He doesn’t need to “blow up” the roster, but it’s clear changes are needed if the Canucks are to avoid a long, slow decline into mediocrity.